If Joe Biden resembles a man hunkered in a basement, Donald Trump looks like a man who is enjoying his Florida retirement. Joe denies, of course, that he is locked in the White House basement most of the day, and oddly enough, we believe him. But he certainly is spending a lot of time in the White House, (we presume in the Oval Office), and also, it is said, at home in Wilmington, Delaware. We don’t know who he sees; we know it is not Vice-President Kamala Harris, whose meetings with the President have become very infrequent. From almost daily meetings in the early months of the new Administration – the Biden/Harris Administration as Joe proudly called it in those distant rapturous days (actually eight months ago) - they seem to have met only eight times in September and about the same in October. The President may have forgotten his Veep’s name, or maybe he does not like to think of it, but there are few references to her, or her work, in his public pronouncements – but then, there are very few public pronouncements.
Mr Trump is not saying a lot either. We guess he sees no need to; his grin gives it all away. This article was going to be about him; we rather miss him, in the way you miss Blofeld if he does not pop up in a Bond movie. But just now there is not much to say, and for once, Donald is not saying much. Either he is pondering tactics down in Mar-A-Lago, or he is being very well advised. Not that the ex-President is noted for listening to advice. His technique whilst he was in the White House was to find advisors who he agreed with, and listen to them – for a while.
Good advice to Donald might be the same as that which is probably being given to Sir Keir Starmer, leader of the Labour Party across the Atlantic in the UK. “Look relaxed, smile, smile; smile some more, say as little as possible”. There is not a lot that either Sir Keir or Mr Trump need to do at the moment other than stay out of trouble. Boris Johnson and Joe Biden, respectively, are doing their jobs for them. And hopefully, as the voters become increasingly fed up, they will return to the party fold. Indeed, it is remarkable how Republican activists are, according to opinion polls, rapidly moving to become Trump loyalists – about 70% of Republican party members now would like to see Mr Trump run again in 2024 – up from around 42% in February this year. That 42% was remarkable in itself, given that Mr Trump had recently aligned himself with that strange storming of the Capitol building.
American politics are probably more bitterly divided than at any time since the election of F.D. Roosevelt in 1929. What might comfort Mr Trump (but not old- fashioned lovers of traditional democracy) is that an increasing number of electors think the election was “stolen” by the Democrats, and that line is now commonly taken by Trump supporters outside Washington. That presages major concerns over what conflicts will arise as the nation approaches the 2024 Presidential run. It is not helped by revelations concerning how some counts were conducted, particularly in some Democrat-controlled counties, and also in the overseas vote. Whilst it is unlikely that these matters, even if all proven, would have affected the 2020 result, it does mean the scrutiny of the 2024 contest is going to be intense. (In the interests of fairness and editorial balance we should also say that there are increasingly vocal concerns about registration processes for poor and ethnic minority voters in a number of Republican-run states.)
But Mr Trump is saying very little. He just smiles. Not to say he and his supporters are busy doing nothing; they’re working the whole day through. There are advantages to having the weight of money behind him which Mr Trump has, not just his own, but from a number of wealthy backers, untrammelled at the moment by restrictions on electoral expenditure. It means that pro-Trump candidates in key states are getting strong support from the Trump office, and anti-Trump Republican candidates are being given a hard time. In the lead up to the caucuses and primaries in late 2023 and early 2024 the Trump grip on the Republicans will grow ever tighter.
This column thought that The Donald’s actions as the masked maniacs stormed the Capitol was the end of his career; a not-too-bad presidency destroyed by the manner of the President’s leaving of it. We expected a new Republican leader to emerge, younger, perhaps female, maybe of Latino heritage, who would reinvigorate the GOP and try to out-nice the kindly, moderate old man who was arriving in the Oval Office. How wrong can you be? We admit it. That kindly grandpa is bumbling, incompetent, seemingly out of his depth, with no principles or vision that might inspire a divided nation. And his old background as a ruthless operator has re-emerged; not least he took on a vice-president, it seems, just to balance the ticket. That strategy has got him where he wanted to be. He has marginalised Ms Harris, given her no tasks at which she could shine and made no effort to promote her as his successor. There will be no Biden legacy to pass to his Veep. If she runs in 2024 – because surely Joe will not – then she will have to invent a new Democrat dream to overcome the chaos and floundering of these years.
If Donald is grinning and thinking about what colour to repaint the Oval Office as he strides back into it in 2025, that is entirely the fault of Joe Biden. Nobody can say of course that Joe is having it easy; the struggle to try to get his spending plans and his taxation changes through the House and through the Senate prove that. His plans to soak the rich, the very rich, with taxes carefully pitched to appeal to the left of his party but perhaps not quite so high so as to force those great fortunes out of the country are the latest part of his plan to be abandoned. Joe realised he would never get them through the Senate. His chances of passing anything through that deadlocked body are nil without the support of Kyrsten Sinema, senior Senator for Arizona, who does not like high taxation (on grounds that it deters wealth production) and Joe Manchin, senior Senator for West Virginia, who does not like green measures (West Virginia is one of the USA’s top coal-mining areas). That’s the Biden taxation policy strategy and the green dream both gone. And there is no evidence that American voters especially regret that. Joe has aligned himself with the more extreme elements of the American left and alienated the backwoods voters, and made himself look incompetent into the bargain. Why should Mr Trump need to do anything? The Biden Administration is doing it all for him.
What Mr Biden has forgotten, or never knew, or cannot admit, is the Ronald Reagan example of how to be President when old. Ronnie had a secret weapon: humour, usually directed at himself. “They say hard work never hurt anyone,” he announced to a media dinner, “But I figure, why take the chance?” That dealt with accusations that the President was asleep on the job. Reagan appointed the best people he knew, gave them their missions, and let them get on with it. And went off to talk to the press, the lobby, TV, and everybody else, with his vision of a new America, his city shining on a hill. Maybe it was true, maybe it wasn’t but the voters loved it. Much better, Joe, than skulking around in the White House avoiding contacts and questions.
Even if Joe is not a nice man – stories conflict on that – he still has the chance to learn how to act like one. That way he might stop the Trump grin, reverse his rapid decline in the polls , become a President, if not of all the people, at least of a majority. If he could anoint his long-suffering Veep as his true deputy and office-mate so that she had a ghost of a chance of being nominated and then elected as President, that would at least be a generous act. It might start the process of healing this great but so tragically divided country. And even persuade the Republicans to do the same.